Obama Confronts Test of Soft Power Approach at G-7 Summit

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Schloss Elmau
Schloss Elmau near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Photographer: Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s reliance on soft power and engagement as his principal foreign policy tools faces a test, as he joins a summit of world leaders in Germany this weekend with multiple unfolding international crises.

Leaders of the Group of Seven nations gather at the exclusive Schloss Elmau resort, at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, with an agenda of worries: Russia’s backing of Ukraine separatists, the spread of Islamic State, Chinese saber-rattling in the Pacific, Greece’s attempt to reach a deal with its creditors and negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Mixed in will be discussions on concluding a global climate agreement and free-trade deals involving the European Union and Asia-Pacific nations, two goals Obama hopes to achieve before he leaves office.

“This is a consequential spring, summer and autumn for the president,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “His legacy issues are on the line and he continues to face substantial challenges to the U.S. national security in the Middle East, Russia and China.”

During his more than six years as U.S. president, Obama has frequently argued that alliances, collective action, and international institutions can address crises more effectively than brute military strength. Recent world events have shown the limits of that approach.

Russia and Ukraine

The meeting among leaders from the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Japan will be the second since the group booted out Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Yet that snub and the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and EU have done little to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to bend.

Russia’s continued incursion into Ukraine will be “the 800-pound gorilla” overshadowing all other aspects of the summit’s agenda, said Julianne Smith, the former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

Reports Wednesday that separatist rebels had begun their most significant offensive in months only deepened concern that a fragile cease-fire agreement with Moscow will not hold.

European countries meanwhile face increasing domestic pressure to loosen the penalties against Russia.

Trans-Atlantic Unity

In the host country of Germany, the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a consortium of about 200 of the country’s leading companies, called this week for Russia to be re-admitted to the G-7. Southern European countries including Spain, Greece and Cyprus have complained about the sanctions’ impact on their agriculture and tourism industries. Sanctions come up for reauthorization later this month at a meeting of the European Council.

“It’s very important coming out of these G-7 meetings that the world is seen as speaking with one voice,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said in a conference call on Thursday. The U.S. wants to make sure it is “in lock-step with our allies,” Rhodes said.

Charles Kupchan, the administration’s senior director for European affairs, said the G-7 summit would give Obama “an ability to forge a meeting of the minds” on the Ukraine crisis.

“We see the trans-Atlantic unity that has been maintained since the outbreak of the conflict as one of our strongest levers,” he said.

The White House has acknowledged that sanctions have so far done little to deter Moscow. Obama will argue that Europe needs to stay the course, Rhodes said.

“Sanctions take time to affect the calculus of other leaders,” he said. Iran endured sanctions over its nuclear program for years before entering negotiations to forgo a weapon, Rhodes said.

Islamic State

Leaders also are grappling with the tenacious threat posed by Islamic State. Its recent victories have heightened concern across Europe, home for many of the group’s foreign fighters, as well as in Japan after the militants beheaded Japanese journalist Kenji Goto earlier this year.

The president is planning a one-on-one meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who will be joined by the leaders of Nigeria and Tunisia at a counterterrorism session on Monday.

Obama’s strategy against Islamic State, which relies on local and regional troops backed by U.S. air power and equipment, has drawn “criticism from all quarters,” said Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy research organization.

Political Impact

As the outcomes of Obama’s foreign policy over the next few months will ripple across the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, already under way. As many as 15 Republicans are vying to succeed Obama along with four Democrats, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The economy has receded as a U.S. domestic political issue as a recovery has taken hold in the country, even if fitful and uneven. Republican candidates are instead taking aim at Obama’s approach to foreign affairs.

“When America doesn’t lead, bad people with bad intentions lead,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a prospective candidate for the Republican nomination, said in Detroit in March. “We need a leader in the White House.”

Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College, said Obama’s success or failure in dealing with the global challenges as his term winds down will affect the mood of the voting public and how candidates react.

More Assertive

While there are exceptions, including Republican Senator Rand Paul and Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic contender, most of the candidates “stand for a more assertive use of U.S. power than President Obama has,” Mead said.

“You now have a lot of the public perceiving real threats from overseas,” he said. “When you have that happen, political leaders feel the need to show themselves to be effective protectors of national security.”

The president’s lowest approval numbers are focused on foreign policy questions, Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm in Washington, said in a phone interview. Just 32 percent approve of the president’s handling of Islamic State, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday.

Campaign Issue

That, Bremmer says, invites Republicans to use international affairs as an entryway for attacks on the administration.

“Foreign policy is clearly becoming the big issue of 2016,” he said.

Many of the current crises will come to a head in the coming weeks and months. By the end of June, agreements are due on negotiations to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and on renewing sanctions against Russia. The campaign against Islamic State, negotiations to conclude a multination trade pact in the Asia-Pacific region, climate talks and the U.S. relationship with China also will all demand attention between now and the next election.

For the president, the G-7 meeting is one of his last, best chances to sell world leaders on his approach. His legacy depends, in part, on the outcome.

“This is the crucial time where we’re going to get some answers on whether he succeeds or does not succeed,” Burns said.

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